There is no combat sport that puts more people into high level MMA than wrestling. Boxers tend to stick to their guns, kickboxers can transition but do so much less frequently, and gone are the days of BJJ dominating the martial arts world – this, however, might be changing in the not so distant future, and I can explain why.
Lets get to why wrestling is so far ahead of the others. It is, arguably, the most important skill for MMA – you can decide where the fight takes place, whether you strike or go to the ground, and when you do end up on the ground you ensure that you end up on top. Takedowns are such an essential skill, if you lack the ability to defend them or execute them you can rapidly find yourself out of your depth. Look at Max Holloway vs Brian Ortega – for all Brian’s skill on the floor, the fact that he couldn’t latch on to Holloway meant that these skills were next to useless. It might be the case that Max stayed on his feet due to better distance control rather than better wrestling, but the point still stands. This is sadly the defeat of many jiu-jitero in MMA, Vinny Maghaleas and Demian Maia to name a couple.
Another reason it develops phenomenal athletes? Mindset. This varies from person to person and gym to gym, but there is something very powerful about the way wresting is taught that makes people tough. One you have learned to grind through the grim spots, to grit your teeth and bare it, work through the struggle day in and day out, there’s not a lot that will stop you. When someone is battered and bruised, but still needs to drag themselves into training to get those rounds in, it is the wrestling mindset that will get them there. When someone is down on points and needs to smash it out to win the fight despite the odds that face them, a wrestler is the one who is going to do it. These are the people who are going to get into the UFC, and the people who are going to climb their way to the top. This mindset doesn’t have to be specific to wrestling, but at the moment there’s no other combat sport that does it so well or so frequently.
For all the benefits of wrestling, I don’t think it’s successful in MMA because of the martial art aspects. I think wrestlers are successful because wrestling gyms are athlete factories. The way that people are taken through drilling in a structured, methodical way is fantastic, and probably the best way to improve your skills. The focus on conditioning is of huge benefit, and something that I think every combat sport should emulate. Not only that, but the fact that in America this is taught at a college level, with everyone looking to become a champion, I think it does wonders for the sport. Being around people with that same drive and that same attitude, looking for this success, it is not surprising that this sport can create people who excel in any walk of life. The fact that it is taught in colleges and universities means that so many are brought into the fold at an early age, taught to be competitive athletes for years and years, is it surprising at all that they dominate in the UFC? If nothing else it’s a numbers game.
Why do I think this might apply to BJJ then? With the introduction of it into schools in Abu Dhabi, I think a lot of the wrestling attributes could translate over. Suddenly, there are so many more people learning it, so many more people looking to excel in it, and so many people looking at the best, most efficient way to become brilliant, BJJ could easily start churning out athletes in this part of the world. Coming back to the mindset aspect, there is no reason that BJJ gyms can;t take this grinding approach. Most do not, which is one of the reasons for the popularity of BJJ – it is that much more accessible to the casual practitioner – but that is not what makes a champion. On the other hand, hearing about the regimens in the Blue Basement or at Atos, I fully believe that BJJ can embrace the same wrestling mentality if it needs to.
This avenue of bringing it into curriculums might be the secret to bringing BJJ back to the top of the MMA world. It might simply be a numbers game. Now there are many times the number of people involved in BJJ, in a learning environment and as more than just a hobby, many might start looking to become professionals, and might start looking at the UFC for a path to go down. With so many people involved, you’re so much more likely to get the top athletes, and iron sharpens iron, as they say, so the more you get the better they all become. Bringing BJJ into schools, wherever in the world it happens, might be the way to put BJJ at the top of the pyramid again.